Trees are everywhere. With the exception of a few brief months in winter, they are always present in their coming and going. More effectively than any other marker, they signal the passing of time. From their soft blossoms and new greens in May to their myriad shades of gold in October, they symbolize and enliven the seasons for us. In this book, Michael Houlihan tells the story of Clare's trees and people's interaction with them. A special consideration is given to sacred trees - those accorded particular respect and reverence by locals.
Clare natives were engaging with trees back in the early Neolithic, as evidenced by drowned forest remains off the coast. Inland, the oldest trees are not on the surface but deep in the bogs. Some have been analyzed and are adding to Ireland's earliest story. They show that the Bronze Age peoples used logs to create pathways across bogs. Iron Age communities ascribed a religious significance to trees. It was then the first references to individual sacred trees and groves emerged. Later generations constructed crannogs, artificial islands from timbers, on quiet lakes. Early Irish Christians had a deep love of nature, expressing their fondness for springs and trees in their writings. In spite of attempts to end this attachment, it is still discernible today at wells and deserted church sites across the country. Indigenous saints always had trees in their stories, whether in the creation of wells using hazel rods or the planting of trees beside sacred springs. Most Clare wells continue to have a companion tree today.
In the unsettled early medieval period, local chieftains were about chopping down one another's sacred tribal tree, an bile, to deliver the ultimate insult. It happened twice at Magh Adhair, Brian Boroimhe's inauguration site near Quin. Later, through centuries of conflict, the woods provided deep havens to the Irish, while proving a bane to English soldiers.
By 1600, the final phase of the annihilation of Ireland's great woods had commenced. In east Clare, ironworks' smelters had consumed the giant forest of Suidaine by the 1700's. In 1800, there was hardly a large tree to be found outside the landed estates in the country. Such was the shortage of timber that people dug ancient trees from the bogs for fuel and building material. The few public trees left untouched were those in sacred places - churches, cilíns, wells and fairy foots. An sceach gheal, Ireland's fairy tree was left undisturbed. Some of the smaller trees - the hazel, alder, rowan and willow continued to be utilised by locals. Native apple trees made Clare cider famous for a while. Through it all, country folk retained their deep affection for trees, marking calendar events with holly at Christmas, Brigid's crosses in February and the May bush at Bealtaine.
The land was stricken by the late 19th century and moves were finally made to correct matters. Large scale planting commenced, and was continued sometimes a little jittery, by the new Irish Free State. The country got better at it and a return to pre-1600 tree populations is slowly happening. County Clare now has many wonderful trees to treasure. This book, with its stories and over 70 colour photographs, may help you find your favourite.